Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Where Loyalties Lie - Rob J. Hayes

“Where Loyalties Lie” is the first in Rob J. Hayes’s ‘Best Laid Plans’ series of fantasy novels. It’s focused on the rise of a duo of pirates, in a world where divinities appear to be real, if distant, and magic is a known, if unusual, quantity.

That said, this is a book about pirates. There are, just to clear this up, a lot of things happening out on open water. Some of those things are murder, looting and, well, basically piracy. The world evokes our own age of pirates, in a way – as independent captians slip in and out of an archipelago, preying on shipping, taking what they want and bloodily murdering (or not) the crews of the ships that they capture. Some of those pirates inspire terror – the cold, vicious Tanner Black rules the islands with an iron fist, and a tightly focused brutality. Others are flagrantly self-interested, but charismatic and successful enough to carry their people along with them, like Drake Morass. Morass also has other ambitions – to shape the pirate isles into something more: a kingdom. This is the age of pirates in decline, as national navies get organised, and start breaking the tide of criminality which saps trade. It’s a complicated time, to be sure – and one we’re given a close up view of here, as various pirate crews attempt to deal with their increasing irrelevance in the larger world, as well as the more personal concerns for treasure and independence.

Morass is a good example. If not amoral, he’s still a man prepared to kill to achieve his goals.Quite what they are is a little amorphous, apart from the desire to take power over the pirate isles. Quite why he wants to do this, apart from for the sake of it, is a bit unclear. There are allusions to his longer term goals, and past events, and I suspect if I’d read the series prior to this one it might have been a bit clearer. On the other hand, Morass works just as he is. If his long term goals are nebulous, his methods are a fine line between compassionate and ruthless; he has an easy charm and charisma which leaps off the page, and a utilitarian view of people which leaves him feeling a little cold. In a similar vein, his penchant for trying to exercise his libido is entirely plausible from a narrative point of view, but leaves him with the equivalent of an oily sheen over his character.
That said, Morass is surrounded by an ensemble cast whose unifying trait is their refusal to buy into his myth. There’s the female witchhunter, attached to Morass if not unwillingly, certainly begrudgingly. Watching her kick arse and meet his lumbering advances with a swift quip and (occasionally) a swift kick is an absolute delight. Frankly, I’d read a book with her as the main character quite happily. That she has a few semi-magical abilities of her own is icing on the cake – horrifying as they may be.

Morass is backed up by others, of course – including more moral captains, struggling with their own desires. One of them is Keelin Stillwater, who seems determined to be as nice as you can whilst also taking other people’s ships and burning them to the waterline for a living. Both Morass and Stillwater are struggling with their own inner demons, and their entanglements with other parts of the buccaneering community. They’re both fast talking leaders of men, larger than life, with a weight that you can feel even when turning the page. I would like to have The naval warfare  more of their emotional journeys, but I suppose that would have cut into the pirating, plotting, and general mayhem.

Speaking of which, Hayes has really captured the essence of the buccaneering lifestyle. There’s a lot of complaints about grog, but there’s also some fast-paced, high impact battles, single combat and ship-to-ship. There is, to be honest, blood everywhere. Also treasure. But it’s wrapped around the personal stories of the characters, and those characters are, if not lovely people, certainly plausible in their pragmatism. This isn’t a story for heroes, but it is one of blood, gold, sailing ships, magic and cannon.

If that sounds like something that would appeal, I’d suggest giving this one a shot. I’ll certainly be reading the sequel!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

First Watch - Dale Lucas

First Watch is the debut fantasy work by Dale Lucas. It’s set in a dilapidated, sharp-edged urban environment, populated by a plethora of species and cultures. It follows a pair of mismatched guardsmen as they investigate murder, mayhem and conspiracy in the city. If I had to draw an analogy, I’d say it evokes the same sort of mood as the action movies of the eighties – with smart mouthed, bickering cops, unapologetic violence, and shades of noir flickering in the city lights.

The partnership between a rookie and a veteran guard is the beating heart of the text. Rem, the rookie, is a lapsed member of the nobility, quite, quite broke, and possibly a little too polite for a police force whose modus operandi is one short step above being a gang of legbreakers. Still, , he’s intelligent, and being new to the city, doesn’t carry the same preconceptions as some of his superiors, or some of the prejudices of his partner. Speaking of which – the other half of this dynamic duo is Torval. Torval’s a veteran – brusque, brutal, and with some rather unreconstructed opinions about Orcs. He’s a force of nature, to be sure, and set in his ways – an excellent counter to the more enthusiastic, more naïve Rem. Their conflicts, between ideals of what could be, and a more cynical acceptance of what currently is, define the text; as they work the case and grow closer thereby, the reader is drawn into the complex bounds of their unspoken discussions. In short, this relationship is a complex one, filled with hopes, broken promises, kept promises, large amounts of alcohol and, eventually, trust. It’s vivid, believable, and has resonance and depth which makes it entirely plausible. These two are wisecracking, slightly murderous, occasionally inept, well meaning, hard hearted po-lice, and a delight to read.

Their city is one drawn on racial lines, where the authority of the Guard falls beneath the heel of separate authorities. The elves, the orcs, the dwarves, they all have their own leaders, and they dispense their own justice. It’s a dirty town, where agreements are made and souls bartered for handfuls of coin. Where two guardsmen trying to sole a murder can get bound up in a web of intrigue and blood as easily as blinking. The city has a certain toxic life to it, once where segregation struggles against an economy that needs diversity, where racial tensions are exacerbated by socioeconomic factors. I’d like to see more of the city, to plumb its heights and depths. What we have is enough to provide a backdrop for the players; it would be marvellous to have more detail.

The plot is reminiscent of noir thrillers. There’s conspiracies, to be sure. Hidden agenda, from friends and enemies alike. The unspoken word is, in many cases, the most powerful one – and workig out what’s going on between the lines can be an exercise for the reader. Which is great – expecting the reader to pick up nuance, to follow along, to draw their own conclusions, false or otherwise, is marvellous. In between, there’s moments of genuine emotion, and a sense of friendship in between schemes and murder. It’s a buddy-cop movie with swords and sorcery, and a rather good one at that. 

I’d like to see more of the series as it matures, but this is an impressive debut; if the fusion of fantasy and mystery is of interest, then this is a book you’ll want to try out.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams (Blog Tour review)

I'm delighted to say that we're part of the blog tour for the second in Jen William's "Winnowing Flame" trilogy. I've really enjoyed Jen's work over the years, so I'm absolutely delighted to say that this is another excellent addition to the series.

The full review is below, but there's a lot more about the book coming from several other great blogs over the coming days, so make sure to check those out as well!

The Bitter Twins is the second in Jen Williams’ “Winnowing Flame” trilogy. Its predecessor was one of the better works of fantasy I picked up last year, so I had hopes for this one. Fortunately, The Bitter Twins is a smart, emotionally charged and imaginative work, and a worthy follow up to the Ninth Rain.

Full disclosure. I really enjoyed The Bitter Twin, and I’ve spent a couple of weeks trying to work out what it was that resonated with me. Perhaps primarily, it’s because The Bitter Twins is a story about relationships. Between families. Between fragments of the same society. Between cultures. There’s all of these links tying people together, or breaking them apart, and that feels like a really strong theme in the narrative. For example, we spend more time with the Queen of the Jure’lia. The worm people. The enemy, those who have broken apart civilisations in their wake, whose desire to consume, to change, is near infinite. But the Queen is spending more time around people these days. 

Or at least around one person; Hestillion, one of the last of the Eborans, once the legendary defenders of the world against the Jure’lia, now a broken, dying people. Hestillion begins as a prisoner, of sorts. She is devastated by the current state of her people, and horrified to be present during the return of their greatest enemy, with no means to prevent utter destruction. But Hestillion is also a pragmatist, a hard-faced, ruthless woman, willing to do a lot to survive. In doing so, she bonds with the Queen, each a conduit into the alien mindset of the other. Hestillion discovering what drives the Jure’lia, and the Queen being somewhat humanised by her contact with Hestillion. I say somewhat, because the bridge between the two is vast; the Queen is wonderfully alien, a creature struggling to understand the ants which cry out as it raises its boot to crush them. Hestillion, by contrast, is fiery, damaged, cloaking pain in an agony of false confidence.

It's a fabulous and tortured pairing, one which lets you have insight into the antagonist, even as they’re making your skin crawl.  But the awkward bond between them may also be the first step in the road to peace.

Then there’s families, made by blood and choice. Though Hestillion’s relationship with her brother, Tor, is a key part of their journey together, it was the bonds of friendship that I thought brought out some marvellous and evocative flashes of narrative. Tor is, of course part time assistant and full tiem troublemaker for Vintage, archaeologist, derring-do-er and smartarse.  But the way they interact is more common to siblings – an exasperated warmth that you can feel radiating off the page, regardless of their cultural differences. Sure, one is a semi-immortal blood drinker, and one is a cranky Indiana Jones in late middle age, but they care for each other, and that care shows.
Tor, of course, is also intrinsically linked to Noon, the Fell-witch. She’s human, and therefore an excellent venue for both Tor’s charms and his occasional need for ichor. But she can also cause things to spontaneously combust. With her mind. I have a lot of time for the portrayal of Noon; she’s a woman who has come out of a hellish situation, fought her way clear, and is dealing with it – whilst also saving the world, and occasionally flirting with a blood-drinking immortal. Noon is alright.

Vintage, of course, remains Vintage – the only person in the main cast with any idea what’s going on. That is, of course, a rather strong presumption. Still, whilst Tor and Noon are squabbling like teenagers - she setting him on fire, him stabbing him, etc. – Vintage is the voice of exasperated reason. She is also, of course, the voice of youth, of a sort. The difficulty comes where Vintage is in a relationship – with a person older than hr, more experienced, more cynical, perhaps – but also physically, visibly younger. Vintage struggles with the conflict between hr earlier, juvenile memories of a relationship which shaped her life, and the more cynically exhausted expectations of her current age – and it rings true; the ache of remembered adolescent infatuation against the wisdom of age.

Anyway, the question you’re asking is: Is it any good? Yes. Yes it is. There’s a whole investigative adventure plot I haven’t touched on for spoiler reasons. Vintage and the beasts of war get to dig into the truth behind the Eborans, past and future. It’s a melancholy exploration of a people whoappear to have lost their purpose along with their strength – and also a great adventure of mystery, discovery, Poirot-esque exclamations and more than a little blood. The plumbing of the mysteries has a suitably creepy atmosphere, one which keeps the pages turning – and the final result is, to put it mildly, a revelation.  

Alongside this plot of secrets, lies and webs of deceit, there’s also one of dragons, heroics, and, dare I say it, love. It’s complicated and simple all at once – people realising who they are, engaging their affections, and occasionally trying to save the world. It’s heartfelt, inclusive, charming fantasy, backed by explosions, dragon-fire, and the warming, wrenching, entirely plausible emotions of the protagonists.

In the end, is this something you want to read? If you’re looking for a sequel to The Ninth Rain, yes, absolutely. If you’re looking for a story not afraid to expose human frailty and emotional honesty in the search for truth, absolutely. If you want mystery and ancient crimes as a backdrop, absolutely. If the idea of flying war-beasts and the end of the world interests you, absolutely. If you have, in the past, read a book, absolutely.

The Ninth Rain was a top pick from last year, and this is a worthy successor; read the original, then follow it up with this – because it’s awesome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Good Guys - Steven Brust

Good Guys is a new urban fantasy novel from Steven Brust. Brust is the author of the long running Jhereg fantasy series. Urban fantasy is, thus, a slight departure for him, but I’m happy to report that it’ a rather fun read, and one which is willing and able to explore the ethical and moral dimensions of what are, in effect, magical powers.

The world is one familiar to any of us. Late-stage capitalism rules the roost. It’s our world, fast cars, skyscrapers and all. Except a few people in that world can do magic. Teleportation. Shielding from bullets. Precognition. Piecing together patterns from loose threads. These people are split into ideological camps. There are those who are prepared to use their skills to make money in less than ethical ways, and those who refuse to do so. A détente exists between the two ideologies, and both are  broadly more concerned with cleaning up the mess of accidental or untrained magic use than with fighting each other. That said, the camp of our protagonists feels more like an underfunded bureaucracy than a secret world of wizards. Everyone’s working for minimum wage, and there are expense claims to be put in after interdimensional travel. No-one has the time to do the job as well as they’d wish, and the group doesn’t have the funds to do as much as it would like to. For a secret organisation of magic users, its institutional underpinnings are delightfully mundane. The griping about claiming mileage after a magical duel, or filling out forms in triplicate to justify magical artefact use work to accentuate the strangeness of magical abilities, whilst grounding them in the modern world.

Our protagonist, Donovan, is a fixer, working for the Foundation, one of the “Good guys”. Along with his team, he investigates unauthorised or dangerous uses of magic. This time, though, they’re investigating a murder. Donovan is focused, perhaps a little curt, and trying very hard to  remain a professional. His team consists of Susan, an athlete with a penchant for martial arts, and Marci, whose lack of experience is more than made up for by her enthusiasm. They’re a tight knit group, with a closeness born of horrific circumstance and their own unique powers. They’re backed by a diverse and convincing ensemble cast – from the tightly focused researcher down to the broke-but-thoughtful mercenary. There’s some deeply eerie people on display here too, and, given the title, some antagonists who, perhaps, don’t entirely see themselves as bad people. This is a book prepared to believe that everyone is the hero of their own story, and unflinchingly explores that moral vein.

The plot is one part murder mystery, one part buddy-cop movie, and one part supernatural magical explosions. The investigation is tense, and the leads, blinds and red herrings the group goes down are plausible, whilst the eventual denouement carries a degree of catharsis. There’s a thoughtful exploration of our heroes moral basis for what they do – tracking down rogue magic users and, euphemistically, dealing with them. In between the investigating and the hard thinking, there’s the occasional shootout, there’s time stops, and people spontaneously catch fire. This is a book which embraces and dives deep into the question of rightful force, and into the ambiguity of a team which does what it thinks is right, at personal cost and at a cost to those they interact with. Above all though, it’s fun. This is a text which challenges preconceptions, and makes you think – and then blows up the building. Where interrogations are largely polite, but when deaths do occur, they’re appalling. The tightly focused mystery is what kept me turning the pages, and the top-notch characterisation gave me the emotional stakes to make the story feel real.

As an entry in urban, contemporary fantasy, this is an intelligent work, which challenges genre preconceptions and those of the reader, but also isn’t afraid to have fun. Gie it a try, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Lady Henterman's Wardrobe - Marshall Ryan Maresca

Lady Henterman’s Wardrobe is the second in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “The Streets of Maradaine” sequence, the first of which I thoroughly enjoyed reading last year. There’s a larger Maradaine universe being explored in other sequences, including youthful and magical vigilantes, and Holmesian mage-detectives, but this sequence focuses on the Rynax brothers, who have a penchant for elaborate heists, a number of slightly strange friends with specialist skills, and a serious desire to find out who burnt down their neighbourhood, in order to express their disapproval.

The city of Maradaine has always seemed like another character in these books, putting different aspects of itself on display, depending on which characters were looking at it. Here, we see both the more run down, un-examined parts of the city, where law enforcement treads quietly, carefully, or in large numbers – and parts prone to the roaring revels of the wealthy, where private guards make sure that nobody who isn’t there to cause the correct kind of trouble is let through the door. 

The first of these is epitomised in the lively neighbourhood where the Rynax brothers make their home. It has several excellent craftspeople, and a sense of community. There’s a history there, across generations, and a sense of people looking out for each other. If the law is far away, the local criminal element operates within rules, operates with respect, and knows where to push and put its boundaries. It’s a place where being an outsider could get you a knife in the kindeys, sure, and one where a moments inattention might lead to a broken head, but where reputation is everything, good and bad.

By contrast, the opulent manors of the rich are a baroque haven, full of enough glinting gild to satiate even the most demanding magpie. These are people happy to stand on the shoulders of others to get where they are – or, if necessary, hold the heads of others under water. Security’s tight, and the spaces are vast – if not overly populated by anyone with much sense of responsibility. That said, the owners are at the top of the socio-economic heap, and they’re certainly willing to keep it that way.

Which brings us to the characters. The Rynax boys are still as wonderfully drawn and complex as ever. One suffering the after effects of a covert operation gone wrong, the other happy to try and build a respectable life and a respectable family – but both determined to track down the cause of their woes. It’s great to see the edges here – there’s someone who might have been an action/anti-hero in another story, struggling with life after being shattered and rebuilt. Then there’s his brother, who is genuinely happy not being the hero of the week, and just wants to settle down, make interesting mechanisms, and have a quiet life with his family. They’re not stereotypical heroes, but they do act as very relatable people, shaped by their experiences, and living with the consequences of their choices.

They’re joined by a thoroughly enjoyable cast of other reprobates. I particularly enjoy the hard-edged markswoman with a penchant for precision and a small crush on the married Rynax, and the street girl who has started to take the children of the streets and make them her own, lending them her own strength when necessary, and pushing forward in an effort to be something more.

There’s a delightful bevy of dubious coves as well. The eponymous Lady Henterman is smooth and cold as ice, definitely someone worth watching. There’s the mysterious gang leader moving in o n the formerly safe territory occupied by the Rynax twins, with his programme of extortion and brutality. There’s Lord Henterman, a man almost frighteningly vague. And, of course, there’s the police – no fan of people they consider nuisances at best, and outright dangerous at worst. Whether some of these erstwhile antagonists are actually bad people is open to debate, which is a nice change – they may just be working their own agenda, without the necessity of malevolence. But there’s some wonderful diversity and personality on display here, and watching them face off against our protagonists was always delightful.

Plot-wise – well, I won’t say much, for fear of spoilers. The Rynax brothers are known for their heists, and this is definitely a story of a plan which needs split second precision, and the ability to react properly when…er..I mean if…it all goes wrong. There’s some wonderful moments where your expectations are subverted, and some wonderful duels, the kind where wit and blade matter as much as each other. There’s some reasl emotional heft in the dialogue between the Rynax gang, and a sense that they’re starting to look forward, and out of their current circumstances. There’s also the white knuckle, every-second-counts high-wire tension, of course, and some revelations that will hit hard, down in the gut. It’s a heist story, an adventure story. A story about family, about friendship, about betrayal, murder, and making a heap of money. 

It’s fast paced, it’s smart, it made me laugh aloud more than once, and it also kicked me right in the feels more than once. This is kick-arse fantasy, and if you’ve been waiting to find out what the Rynax brothers did next, or you’ve always wondered how a fantasy heist would go down, this one’s worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Kings of the Wyld - Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is the debut fantasy novel from Nicholas Eames. In a world ravaged by monsters, the mercenary bands who combat them are treated like rock stars. Some of them do it for the money. Others do it for the fame. And a band which rocked the foundations of the world is being drawn back together for one last gig.

The world s one split between the urban and rural. In the urban we have walled cities, towering monuments to ingenuity and skill. That they have rather thick walls is surely incidental. This is a civilisation based on the ruins of others – a near immortal race of bunny-eared savants put down the roots of the modern society, before their brutal annihilation in mysterious conflicts of the distant past. Their artefacts are as powerful as they are mysterious – which is to say, very. Still, it’s a land almost at peace. The vast and monstrous hordes of decades past have been broken by bands of mercenaries, mixing magic, swagger and violence together in an intoxicating blend that is almost, but not quite, heroism. This is a land not fit for heroes. But something is stirring, and this precision-crafted world provides a vivid and detailed backdrop for the machinations of the characters.

The band are a diverse bunch. They’re a mix of sociopaths restrained by their better natures, and/or those who use monster-hunting as an outlet for their violent urges, glory-seekers, money-grubbers and those who might be charitably described as a little unstable. They’re also experienced, or, if one is feeling less polite, middle aged. This band of hardened killers has stories written about them, and once shook the world – but they’ve broken up, settled down, and found their own causes; their reputation maintained by an audience which is now itself older, while newer, cooler bands capture the hearts of the young. Somewhere in there is a commentary on playing to large arenas for the love of the crowd, as opposed to the older craft of trudging around the country and working smaller venues in your murder of monstrosities. In any event, The Band are not, in a lot of ways, nice people. But mellowed, or possibly even broken, by their age and having survived everything that life threw at them, they’re amazing to read about. Gabe, the charismatic, subversive face of the band, if not the leader, is a wreck held together by love for his daughter. Their rogue is deadly with knives and lockpicks, but also suffers from having everything he’s ever wanted. The shield-man, our protagonist, manages to restrain his own penchant for brutal violence with the totem of his family, and his love of the rest of the band. This is a group of tired individuals, gone somewhat to seed; but if their past is now behind them, they still have the energy, the raw potential, to make things change. The chemistry between them is palpable, and the relationships they construct, or the histories that they carry with them are subtle, human things, which put wounds, scars and faces to the characters, and give them a certain depth and heart.

The plot – well, at base, it’s a journey. Physically, yes, as the band reforms and marches across the world in service to a larger goal. And that’s a rip-roaring adventure for sure, with political machinations, horrific monstrosities, kinetic combat and an emotional heart which hasthe potential to rip you open at the same time as it promises cathartic resolution. It’s gloriously bloody, honest stuff, which has a core of humanity which makes it affecting and real. But that’s the thing – alongside the physical journey, the swordfights, the daring escapes, the complaints about old injuries, there’s the personal journey as well. This is a band not entirely prone to self reflection, coming to terms with their own past, and the realisation that the tarnished images they built for themselves in their youth have been largely forgotten, feet of clay and all. This is a journey which challenges assumptions, and explores the ties that bind a group together – loyalty, truth, and the desire to make a lot of money.

It's an absolutely cracking debut, and one I recommend unreservedly. Give it a try. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blood of Assasins - R.J. Barker

Blood of Assassins is the second in R.J. Barker’s “The Wounded Kingdom” series. It follows Girton, sometime trainee assassin, sometime artiste, and occasional killer, as he investigates treachery, mendacity, magic, and the occasional murder, in a land broken by malevolent sorcery and internecine warfare.

The Girton of this story is one scarred by war. He’s spent the last few years out on the borders, fighting for pay. We last saw him as a damaged youth, but this is a man who has internalised his own wounds, then coated them over with armour, both metaphorical and physical. The agile sweeps of an assassin’s knives have been put away, and a Warhammer taken up instead. It’s a brute thing, an engine of war which breaks what it touches – and in that choice, the reader can see some of the struggle that Girton has internalised. There’s a rage bubbling up in there, and a sense of the cost of both fighting and running away. He travels with the woman who raised him, his Master, a woman whose unspeakable lethality is matched by a closely held affection for Girton. Their relationship has weathered storms, and the warmth of the complex bond between the two is a joy to behold. That Girton may feel a certain possessiveness makes sense; this relationship, almost parent-and-child, is the one point of stability in a life of disguise, double-bluff and murder. But the text lets him face up to the ugliness of that possessiveness, and isn’t afraid to explore the emotional landscape of the boy-becoming a man. In a life seemingly lacking much non-mentor affection, Girton is emotionally vulnerable, no matter the armour he wears, physical and mental. The loyalty and love Girton has for his master is the emotional heart of the text – or at least one of the lungs; the other is Girton’s relationship to Rufra, perhaps the only friend he has, now a king fighting a war for the throne.

Rufra and Girton work well together because of their history. They’re two boys who fought their way out of something terrible, and have grown into men trying to do the same. Rufra struggles with the demands of kingship – with being a good and just king, with the harsh realities of statecraft, and with balancing those against his own needs. Girton’s return, a reminder of a simpler time, may help him claw back some of the sense of self which being a leader, being a figurehead, takes away. The dialogue between the two, from angry words through to silent affirmations of friendship, is pitch perfect, and emotional depths are quietly and breathtakingly plumbed. This is a book which carries the weight of hurt and fire white hot rage in its prose, and leavens it with an intimacy and humanity which makes it impossible to put down.

Girton is, of course, drawn into the madness of the struggle for the kingdom of Maniyadoc,  land already broken and poisoned by sorcery. The atmosphere is one of conflict, of broken bodies and broken promises, where the social bonds that keep everything together have begun to fray – or, in some cases, been deliberately snapped. Maniyadoc continues to fascinate, as the social hierarchy - set in stone by the apparent death of their divinities – begins to disintegrate. The upheaval is not just political, but social, and you can see that in every common soldier starting to think that maybe the knights up on their horses don’t have any idea how to lead. Or in the new wave of priests quietly preaching the ideas of change. Or in the way the Landsmen, killers of magic users, willing to use their blood to return a land to life, will stand aside whilst the political uncertainties wear themselves out. This is a land in flux and crisis, without question, and one where the battles, where the knives in the dark and the swords on the field all come within the wider tapestry of compelling world-building.

The plot? Well, it’s intriguing stuff. Girton investigates a plot to kill a king, and win a throne. There’s espionage. Counter espionage. Betrayals. There’s love, for family and romantically thrown into the mix. There’s a lot of assumptions that get put on display and torn down, as the world rearranges itself over the course of the story. This is a story of mystery and murder, more than a whiff of LeCarré mixed into the cavalry charges and politicking. There’s blood, for sure, and sacrifice, and a feeling of costs and consequences for every inch of progress – and there’s some wonderfully human moments in the mix, and opportunities to grasp a little light and hope in the maelstrom. The scheming is suitably byzantine, the stakes both immediate and personal -the story, spellbinding. If you’ve made it this far, and you want to know if this sequel is worth it, take away an emphatic yes. It’s definitely worth picking this one up.